Town planners must build strategic movements

Dr Msizi Myeza is the chief executive of the Council for the Built Environment. Picture: Supplied

Dr Msizi Myeza is the chief executive of the Council for the Built Environment. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 8, 2023



Inclusive urban development in South Africa should be something that dominates our public discourse: it affects most people daily, be it through the long distances that the poorest of the poor undertake to get to and from work, school and even health care; be it where social housing development takes place on the periphery of cities, far from economic opportunities; or be it lack of well-located land for inclusive development. Yet it remains largely an abstract concept.

Even when President Cyril Ramaphosa raised the concept of the Smart City during his State of the Nation address in 2018, the topic missed the mark, with few people engaging with the concept.

The topic of urban planning and development is not a discourse that is valued by society in general. Again, in September 2023, Ramaphosa repeated this when he said: “There is a lack of capacity within the state, especially at the local government level. We don’t have well-qualified CFOs, engineers, or town planners. Apartheid robbed us of having a plethora of town planners in the education system.”

I agree with the president’s sentiments.

Let’s take Pixley ka Seme District in the Northern Cape which has eight municipalities, none of which has suitably qualified town planners to help with urban planning or engineers to help with infrastructure development. It’s not because there is no demand for the skills in the municipalities but because they are not able to attract and retain the skills in these remote towns.

South African planners who have been taught traditional planning, which is about retaining the status quo, are predominantly clouded by land use management processes, spatial development frameworks and abstractive urban policies.

If we do not have our own authentic South African urban development agenda, there is nothing to be passionate about.

South Africa has, for the longest time, done urban development by copying and pasting Western models onto our landscape.

I do not think the so-called South African urban planners have the wherewithal to mobilise society, let alone lead its transformation. I cannot emphasise this point enough.

The urban planning profession has been infiltrated by geographers, sociologists, lawyers, teachers and basically anyone who can be admitted into a postgraduate programme in our tertiary institutions.

The fact that schools of urban planning at our universities are nowadays judged by the number of students they admit instead of the quality of the research work they conduct, has allowed all and sundry to flood the profession.

Strategic planning comes across as something only a select few can do. This is not the case – every town planner has the ability to grasp the concepts and expand on them. But this is a reason why strategic planning has not gained momentum in South Africa.

The result of this is a large cohort of mass-produced, certified, but not technically equipped, urban planners. Hence, South Africa has few strategic urban planners.

A lot of think tanks are corporate, commercial and entrepreneurially focused because that sector has been the focus of advocacy actions, and everyone believes they can be part of it – they can “be” in business or run an entrepreneurial enterprise. Sadly, there has not been the same push for strategic planning.

The think tanks are usually driven by companies that have a vested interest in that course. Which companies in South Africa have a genuine vested interest in urban development? Where are the large sponsors driving the urban development dialogue and funding educational programmes?

To create thee movements, you need urban and regional planners who are technically equipped with problem-solving capabilities, not just generalists. Urban planners must provide value to society and not just offer slogans about transformation, densification, inclusion, undermining apartheid geography and the like.

If planners do not come to the party, urban planning, as we know it, will cease to exist. This is the only way urban planners can lead a transformation movement and claim their credibility. If not, the politicians, developers, geographers, lawyers, communicators, marketing gurus and NGOs will direct and lead the urban development discourse.

Therefore, to create a movement, you need passionate professionals who have the ability to mobilise people, from the person who sells fruit on the street corner, to the director in the corner office, to the politicians in Parliament. A great example is the work of journalist, writer and activist Jane Jacobs who influenced urban studies, sociology and economics through her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.

As long as there is fragmentation and conflict among people and collective perspectives, a movement cannot be sustainable. Like it or not, people like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher pushed the concept of neo-liberal planning, managing to get everyone on board – and it transformed the UK because everyone had a common goal, to push development and attractive private sector investment.

In South Africa, we are not able to focus on a common developmental goal, as we are all singing from vastly different song sheets, especially those in positions to push the movements.

There is a significant divide between academic institutions and government. Take the City of Tshwane, the City of Johannesburg or the City of Cape Town for instance. There are several academic institutions based in the cities, but none do work that is aimed at assisting the municipality to resolve its development challenges.

Whenever they are approached by the government or municipalities, the institutions treat it as a business transaction instead of contributing to the development process.

It is time for urban planners to become much more strategic in what they do.

Dr Msizi Myeza is the chief executive of the Council for the Built Environment.

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